The Transformation of Wetwood Smokes

On a chilly Wednesday evening, Wetwood Smokes blasts through my car stereo as I head to their Costa Mesa apartment. Josh Bowman’s vocals remind me of a young Jonny Lang: soulful, bluesy, and stained with rock & roll. I crank up the volume, letting the raw, reverb-laden sound wash over me. Despite being relatively new, the band’s limited discography shows a promising level of consistency.

Their knack for memorable hooks and textured indie-rock grooves strengthens between their 2014 debut album, Earth Tones & Red, and 2015’s Organ Donor EP. You can hear the confidence of Bowman, bassist Chrystian Cano and drummer Steven Howard (all of whom play multiple instruments) growing as they deliver a textured blend of harmonizing indie rock. Guided by local recording ace Jon O’Brien, they’re ready to release their latest EP, Our Third, on Saturday.

Inside their apartment, a blazing fire warms the living room; acoustic guitars adorn the walls as though fine art. “I met Steven at Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, where the two of us grew up,” Cano says.

“I grew up in Costa Mesa, but Steven is my step-brother,” Bowman added. 

The three musicians recorded their first album in Bowman and Howard’s parents’ garage. “I think the neighbors probably harbored some animosity,” Howard says. Their second album was recorded in their old, cramped apartment, located just down the street, cluttered with PAs, amps and drums. “It was chaotic and sort of a shit hole, but we played a lot of music there,” Howard says.

During that time, they hosted several house parties dedicated to performing covers. “We would post on our Instagram, ‘Direct message us what you’d like to hear,'” Bowman says. “Then we would perform about eight to 10 of those covers and drink PBR.”

Learning to master cover songs quickly sparked the inspiration to work just as efficiently on their originals. Our Third was recorded in a single weekend at a secluded cabin in Twin Peaks. They recorded four songs, but after listening to them, they decided to release the three that came out the best, saving the fourth for their next album. 

“Can we play ‘Dead Pixel’ for you now?” Cano asks. Bowman clicks play on his laptop. The band mates tuck their chins to chest nearly in unison, as they listen intently. The three-minute track sounds surprisingly different from anything on Organ Donor. Blustering rock energy and pounding drums permeate the song, which swaps placid, indie rock for fuzzed-out rock & roll à la Jack White.

The songs for Our Third were recorded live to give listeners the feel of being in the room with the band during their mountain jam session. This evolution was influenced by artists such as Beck, who’s known for dabbling in different styles as frequently as he changes his bellbottoms. “Beck put out Morning Phase, which won album of the year, and it was all acoustic,” Howard says. “Then he released ‘Dreams,’ which is straight-up pop/rock. You can get away with that kind of stuff today; you don’t have to be pigeonholed.”

Wetwood Smokes’ goal is to release clusters of songs that have a collective sound more often, rather than releasing a full-length once a year or so. This will honor their day-job schedules and gives the band the opportunity to attract more fans.

“Our challenge as a three-piece band has always been to create the same sound as, say, a five-piece,” Howard says. “But if we can’t replicate that sound live, then it’s not worth it for us.”

Wetwood Smokes perform with NOBLES, Big Monsta and the Diamond Light at the Wayfarer, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 764-0039; Sat., 7 p.m. $5. 21+.

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